Sometimes, when you go back and look at a story, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right…

This is the start of a story I did last month for the new library benefit anthology we’re doing.

Hank Blake wiped his face with his handkerchief as he glared at the pipe racked at the side of the derrick. Another sixty feet is all we’ve got. Where the hell is old man Orisman? He was supposed to be here three hours ago! His other hand rested on the kelly as it thumped around, telling him the string was still in hard rock, dropping a couple of inches every minute or so.

Tony Coletta stepped up on the platform and walked over. “What are we going to do, Hank?”

Hank looked down at Tony. “We got sixty feet then we shut down. I don’t know where the old man is.”

Tony spat off to the side of the derrick. “We’re gonna need water soon, too. I ain’t puttin’ that creek water in the boiler.”

Hank nodded. “Yeah, we don’t need to blow one up like Harrel did.” He walked over and looked down at the feeder pond and settling pond. “I think we got enough thin mud to get through these two sticks.” A gush of muddy water spit into the settling pond and he bit his lip. “Not a bit of sheen. We aren’t even close to getting any oil.”

Tony looked at the pump setting on the lip of the feeder pond. “Still sucking creek water, so we’re good there, but if we shut down, I’ma shut the generator off to the pumps. It’s squealing a little bit, I think the impeller might be picking up some corrosion from the creek water.” He shook his head. “No point in pumping water up here for nothin’.”

Hank laughed. “We aren’t on a ship anymore, Tony. More water isn’t going to sink us.”

Snorting, Tony replied, “No, but that old boiler ain’t in as good a shape as the one on the Wadsworth!”

“Ain’t a Yarrow boiler either. Face it Tony, you got spoiled on Wadsworth.”

The rattle of a Model T pickup interrupted Tony’s response clattering up to the derrick. Old man Orisman stepped out, mopped his red face, took off his seersucker jacket and stumped his way up to the derrick floor.

Tony slipped back to his boilers and steam plant as Hank met Mr. Orisman at the rotary. “Yes, sir?”

 Orisman mopped his face again, looked up at the crown block at the top of the derrick, and finally looked up at Hank. “How far down are we?”

“Right at thirty-five hundred feet, sir.”

“Damn! Another dry hole!” Orisman’s face got even redder, if that was possible as his accent slipped into Pennsylvania Dutch. “I can’t…this is the fourth damned dry hole.” He took out his handkerchief and mopped his face again, then peered at Hank. “I’m done. I never should have come down here.” He waved his arms around. “Too hot, strange land, crooked shysters in charge of things…” He trailed off.

Hank said, “Well, you’ve got another thirty days on the lease, correct?”

Orisman spit. “For what? There ain’t no damned oil out here! We’re too far north of town!” He waved again. “Nothing out here but rock, and that damned creek. I knew better!” Hank started to say something, but Orisman went on, “Nothing against youse guys. I couldn’t have asked for better. You, Tony, and the rest of the crew did your jobs as well as I could expect.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of money. “Here’s enough to pay everybody through next Friday. Maybe you can catch on with another crew by then.”

Hank nodded as he took the money, not bothering to count it as he shoved it in his jeans. “Mr. Orisman, what are you going to do with the rig?”

Orisman spit again. “Try to sell it. Or at least the pipe. The rest…isn’t worth much. Why?”

Hank blew out a breath. “Would you be willing to sell it to us? And the lease?”

Orisman laughed. “Hank, what’s gotten into youse?”

Shrugging, Hank said, “Well, there is thirty days left on the lease and…”

“You think you can pull a rabbit out of the hat? Is that it?” Orisman chuckled. “Youse guys really are crazy. Five hundred dollars for all of it, but where are you going to come up with that much money? Hell, for that, I’d even throw in the truck!”

I gotta be nuts for even thinking about this, but dammit, I still think there is oil up on that ridge. If the bank in Amarillo will give me credit, I’ve…we’ve got the money in the bank in Dallas, but Emma will kill me if I lose it. “If we can go to Amarillo tomorrow, I think I can get the money from the bank.”

Orisman cocked his head. “You’re serious. You get the money, you have a deal. Mortensen was at his town hoose yesterday, so he’ll probably be there tomorrow. You pay me, we’ll go by his hoose and I’ll sign the lease over to you.”




Hank had given Tony the money to pay everybody, and he and Orisman left early for the three-hour drive to Amarillo. Orisman was in another seersucker suit, his trunk in the truck’s bed, and Hank had on his cleanest jeans and a white shirt, along with his cowboy hat. When they walked into the Amarillo National Bank, Hank took a deep breath and went to the one teller window that was open. The well dressed, auburn-haired young lady smiled up at him. “Can I help you, sir?”

Hank cleared his throat. “I…have money in the First National Bank in Dallas. Can I write a check on them?”

She said, “For how much, sir?”

Hank gulped. “Ah, seven hundred fifty dollars.”

She said, “That is more than I can approve. Let me get Mr. Wells. He can help you. Follow me, please.” She led Hank and Orisman over to a middle-aged man in shirtsleeves with sleeve garters holding up his sleeves. “Mr. Wells, this gent needs to make a draw on First National Bank Dallas, and it is more than I’m allowed to do.”

A half hour later, Hank handed Orisman five hundred dollars and Wells witnessed the sale of Orisman Exploratory’s assets to one Hank Blake. Orisman smiled, “Well, you did it, Hank. Now let’s go find Mortensen and you can take me to the station. If this goes quickly, I can make the two o’clock train east!”

Orisman drove over to Mortensen’s house, and they met with the hard eyed old rancher in his town office. Mortensen bit his lip as Orisman slid the signed lease transfer across the table. “What makes you think there’s oil on my property, Blake?”

Hank looked up at the ceiling. “Mr. Mortensen, I’ve…I just think oil is there. I know nothing’s been found up north yet, but I think it’s there. I’ve got a hunch we’ve been drilling in the wrong place.”

Mortensen glanced at Orisman. “I thought you paid one o’ them geologists to find oil.”

Orisman shrugged. “I did. It didn’t pan out.” He pointed at Hank. “I don’t think Hank is going to find any, but if he wants to take a chance on a hunch, more power to him. And he’s done an excellent job for me as a driller.”

Mortensen signed the lease with a flourish. “Good enough. Thirty days, Blake.”

Hank nodded. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do my best.”

Orisman pulled out his pocket watch. “If we leave now, I can make my train.” He got up as Hank shook hands with Mortensen. They left and Hank drove Orisman to the station, then unloaded his trunk as Orisman went to get his ticket.




Three hours later, Hank pulled up at the drilling rig and was met by Tony. “We’ve got a problem.”

Hank sighed. “What now?”

“Herweg showed up out here with a couple of deputies. He gave us twenty-four hours to get off the property or be arrested for vagrancy. He said since Orisman is gone, obviously we’re out of work.”

Hank chuckled. “No, we’re not. We’ve got thirty…well, twenty-nine days to drill and get oil.”

Tony looked at him. “How? I heard what Orisman said yesterday.”

“I bought the rig and the lease. I know there is oil here.”

“You what? What in the hell were you thinking, and where did you get the money?” Tony peered at him. “Does Emma know?” He shook his head. “You didn’t tell her, did you?”

Hank slapped his forehead. “Dammit! I knew there was something else I was going to do before I left Amarillo! Shit…”

Tony said softly, “You’re a dead man walking. You know that, right?”

“Only if I fail, Tony, only if I fail. Gather everybody up and let’s have a confab at the mess tent.”

Fifteen minutes later, the entire crew sat around the tables in the mess tent. Sampson and Mae passed out coffee cups and finally sat at the end of the table. Hank stood up and cleared his throat. “I’ve bought the rig and the lease. I have twenty-nine days to bring in a producing well here. Y’all are paid through next Friday. Those that want to stay I will have enough to pay you. Those that want to leave are free to do so next Friday. Meanwhile, we need to pull pipe and clear the hole.” He looked around. “Billy, stay or go?”

Billy was the youngest of the roughnecks. “Stay. You gave me a chance when nobody else did.”


Patrick shrugged. “I’ll stay ‘til next week.”


Shorty unfolded from the bench. “I’ll stick. Beats the hell outta punchin’ cows. Better pay too!” That got a laugh out of the roughnecks.

Alton said, “Same for me.”

Tony laughed. “I’m in it to win it.”


Roland was the oldest of the roughnecks, who’d come up from Spindletop with Hank and Tony. “I’ve known you for almost twenty years, Hank. I’ll stick.”

Hank cocked his head as he looked at Sampson and Mae. “Sampson?”

Sampson looked down at Mae, and she nodded. “We’ll stick. I ain’t knowed you as long as Roland, but you allus treated me right on the ship, and when you got me hired to cook down in south Texas, you got me paid same as ever one else. An’ you ain’t tried nuthin’ with Mae.”

Hank laughed. “Sampson, I may be a dumb country boy, but I am smart enough to not want to be on your bad side. I’ve seen you fight, remember?” He smiled at Mae. “Besides, I’ve seen what Mae can do with a butcher knife!”

That cracked up everyone, and Tony said, “So we’re pulling pipe?”

Hank nodded. “That and we gotta move the rig. I’ll go see if Jake the Snake is around and get his crew to do it.” He scrubbed his face. “Gonna be some long hours folks. We’re gonna drill day and night. If that’s what it takes.” He looked around again. “Thank you for sticking with me on this. Now let’s go pull some pipe.”

As everyone left, he walked over to Sampson. “Can you go get food and see if you can get a teamster out here with a pipe wagon?”

Sampson nodded. “I’ll need some money. Ain’t nobody gonna take a black man’s word they gonna get paid.”

Mae added, “And I need some laundry soap. I can only do so much to keep y’all’s clothes clean. Y’all a bunch of dirty men!”

Hank snorted. “Drilling is a dirty job, Mae. You know that.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out forty dollars, then handed it to Sampson. “Let me know if you need more.”

He went and found Tony getting up steam. “What about water? Do we need more?”

Tony shook his head. “The water wagon showed up this morning, and I got enough to get through the weekend only cost fifty cents for a thousand gallons. I’ll be ready in ten minutes.”

Billy came up and asked, “What do you want me to do up top?”

Hank looked up at the crown block, then back at Billy. “We’ll pull the Kelly first. Set it to the side, then come down and rack the drill pipe to the other side. We won’t get much done before sunset, but I at least want to get it started.”

Billy nodded and started climbing the derrick as Hank heard the belts turning. Roland brought the clamps from the tool shed and dropped them on the rotary. “Me and Patrick breaking the pipe, Shorty and Alton stackin’?”

Hank nodded. “I’ll run the winch off the clutch here.”

Tony sounded the whistle, showing steam was up. Hank looked up and got a thumbs up from Billy, looked around the drilling floor and saw that everyone else was in position. “Here we go,” he yelled as he engaged the clutch and the kelly rose out of the rotary. Once it cleared by about four feet, Hank stopped the winch, Roland slapped the rotary stop on the pipe below it, and Patrick took tension on the kelly. With a grunt of effort, he broke it loose and spun it off the first section of drill pipe.

Billy had disconnected the hose that pumped the mud to the drill pipe and yelled. “Ware the hose!” He dropped it down the side of the derrick away from everyone and Alton pushed it off the side of the drilling floor as Billy pulled the kelly to the side. Shorty pushed the bottom of the kelly to the side and said, “Down winch.” Hank dropped the winch cable allowing the kelly to land on the drill floor, and Shorty yelled, “Disconnect, Billy!”

By sunset, they had pulled twenty lengths of pipe, and stacked them inside the derrick when Hank called it quits. “We’re done for tonight. Shut it down, Tony! Billy, come on down.”

Sampson and Mae had come back with food, and he told Hank that a teamster would be out to the rig in the morning. Hank nodded and said, “The guys can probably use some food. I’m going to town to see if I can find Jake. I want to move the rig on Monday.”

I went back and started looking at it a couple of days ago, and wasn’t happy with the story flow, in addition to it being a little (1000 words) long. I usually try to bring the story in right around 8000 words if that is what is desired, but this one ran long.

I ended up removing most of the courthouse scene, taking out about 750 words, and rewrote the ending, changing some of the details. I ran it by a couple of folks and they agreed, so I’ll resubmit it next week.

Now it’s back to work on the next Bell Chronicles! 🙂


Cha…cha…changes… — 10 Comments

  1. Want MOAR!!!! Please.

    Really got me interested. Good characters, good action, be interesting to find out what happens next, especially when the wife finds out.

  2. Having grown up near Amarillo and known both cattle ranchers and oil drillers (even worked one double shift as a roughneck), I can easily relate to this story. I really like it so far.

    Roughneck pay was good, but the work environment was not my cup of tea. My uncle worked drilling rigs on land and offshore for many years.

  3. Beans- Next month!

    Feral- My dad spent over 30 years in the ‘bidness’…

    Bob- Thanks!

  4. “Story” ?!? Nonono!! Surely you mean “book”, or at the least, “novella”.

    Please?…Seriously, though, this is great, not least because it reminds me of The Grey Man a bit. So..thank you! (even if it remains in this [sinfully short] form, good writing is still good writing.)

    Nudge! Nudge!

  5. I found that the Wadsworth was DD-60 and she was a Tucker class can launched in 1915. That also fits in with the mention of the Yarrow boiler.

    Corrosion from creek water.
    Unless the water chemistry in the creek water is really weird, it’s going to be pretty much neutral and not have much effect on the cast iron of the pump.

    Please keep on writing because the oil boom era is not well known.

    • Re: corrosion from creek water. I once worked a nuclear power plant that used a local river for cooing a condenser for an off-gas system. Stainless steel condenser tubes lasted one to two years. Eventually they went with an exotic specialized alloy that was supposed to extend the life of the tubes. They later changed the system to use a different coolant altogether so I never saw if the exotic alloy tubes actually did the job. But I can sure imagine what using that kind of crappy (literally) water would do to a steam boiler.

  6. JLM- Thanks!

    John- LOL, yes, I did the research. 😉

    NRW- I talked to a retired BTC, and got an EARFUL about ‘bad water’ and boilers…